DA change policy after man's questionable arrest
FARMINGTON — The questionable arrest earlier this year of a 46-year-old Ignacio, Colo., man has resulted in a lawsuit against the city of Farmington and a change of procedure at the San Juan County District Attorney's Office.
Christopher Winterhawk states in the lawsuit filed on Nov. 9 that he was arrested on unfounded allegations that he burglarized a residence in Aztec earlier this year.
Winterhawk claims the officer who investigated the case, Jon Lillywhite, failed to contact him before seeking a warrant for his arrest and did not follow up on key pieces of evidence in the case, according to the lawsuit.
Winterhawk's attorney, Arlon Stoker, said Monday that his client was charged based solely on the fact that his vehicle was found to be in possession of a woman suspected of forging stolen checks.
But Lillywhite never questioned Winterhawk, who says he would have told the officer he gave the vehicle to the woman, his ex-girlfriend, several months prior to the incident as a gift, according to Stoker.
"Why didn't you make one phone call? Then you would have known he had nothing to do with it," Stoker said, adding later. "Even with a half-assed investigation, he would have been cleared up right there."
Winterhawk named the city of Farmington, police Chief Steve Hebbe and Lillywhite as defendants in the lawsuit. He seeks unspecified damages for false arrest and imprisonment and deprivation of civil rights.
Farmington police spokeswoman Georgette Allen said Lillywhite was hired by the Farmington Police Department in August 2013. She said Lillywhite is not a detective, but is trained to conduct criminal investigations.
Allen declined to say why Lillywhite did not question Winterhawk before filing criminal charges, citing the lawsuit.
In a statement Hebbe said: "Just like complaints that we accept from the public, oftentimes things like this allow us to review our procedures and training to ensure they are everything we want."
Farmington City Attorney Jennifer Breakell said she believed the officer acted properly and the city will defend itself in the lawsuit.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Dustin O'Brien said Monday he apparently authorized the warrant for Winterhawk, but he does not remember speaking with Lillywhite about the investigation. He said the case against Winterhawk was dismissed in July for lack of evidence and his office now requires prosecutors to record in writing all conversations with law enforcement officers regarding warrants.
According to the police report, Lillywhite was dispatched March 27 to the Walmart at 1400 W. Main St. in Farmington after receiving reports that two women had attempted to forge a check.
The women fled the store in a Chevrolet truck before Lillywhite arrived, but the officer seized the suspect checks left at the scene, which belonged to Mary Davis, the report states.
Later that day, the two women and an unidentified man attempted to use Davis' checks to purchase items from The Arc of San Juan County at 200 W. Broadway Ave., the report states. An employee at the thrift store told Lillywhite he denied the sale and the suspects left the store in a blue Chevrolet truck bearing a Colorado license plate registered to Winterhawk.
The officer learned the checks were stolen during a burglary in Aztec.
Michelle Every was identified through an investigation as one of the two women who attempted to forge Davis' checks and she was charged March 30 in Farmington Magistrate Court with two felony counts of forgery, according to court records.
Every's attorney, Ruth Wheeler, declined to comment when reached by phone on Monday.
Every has been charged or is suspected in several other check or credit card forgery cases and is accused of burglarizing a Farmington law office on Aug. 6. However, she was not charged with burglarizing Davis' residence.
According to the police report, a Farmington police officer found the blue Chevrolet truck registered to Winterhawk on April 1 parked outside a residence at 408 Ouray Ave.
A man at the residence told Lillywhite that Winterhawk was allowing him to test drive the vehicle because he was thinking about purchasing it.
The man would not allow the officer to search the vehicle, so the department seized it and obtained a search warrant, the report states. On April 3, Lillywhite and a community service officer searched the vehicle and located eight-track tapes with Davis' signature on them, according to the report.
Lillywhite then sought a warrant for Winterhawk's arrest on charges of burglary and possession of stolen property.
Winterhawk was extradited from Ignacio, Colo., and charged April 6 in Farmington Magistrate Court with residential burglary, a third-degree felony, and receiving stolen property valued at $250 or less. He was held in Ignacio and at the San Juan County Adult Detention Center.
The charges were dismissed by prosecutors for lack of evidence on July 10.
Stoker said Lillywhite was "grossly incompetent" for failing to call his client about the truck.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Dustin O'Brien said after the case was dismissed he reviewed his phone records, which confirmed he spoke to Lillywhite for about a minute before the arrest warrant was issued.
But O'Brien said he may have told the officer that he needed more evidence and the officer misunderstood him.
"The officer claims I approved the warrant and, honestly, I don't know," O'Brien said. "I don't remember the conversation, but my cell phone records show I did talk to him."
O'Brien said prosecutors in his office met in August or September and agreed to create a written record whenever they discuss an investigation with law enforcement officers, so the details will be available if needed.
Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644.